Sign industry expert and freelance sign designer
read time
15 minute read
Ever had questions that you wanted to ask a long-time sign industry professional? Yeah we did too. Here's his answers.

Q&A

Q: What are major differences between designing the normal vinyl sign shop stuff vs designing for illuminated signage? For a guy who's spent most of his life designing logos, brands, marketing collateral, flat signage, etc - what would be the most important things to know?

A: That's a tough one...

In a lot of ways the same basic principals of good design apply (or should apply) no matter what your designing, be it a logo or a giant pylon sign or a vehicle wrap.

At the end of the day if it's not a good design, no matter what it is, it won't be doing its job.

so that's first and foremost.

But just like with any specific design niche there are some nitty gritty details you have to really understand.

People designing for print typically have a really good understanding of the printing processes, papers, inks, etc.

If you're designing for flat signage, you probably have an understanding of what materials you're working with, how it'll be hung, etc.

For electrical signs, the same applies. You have to think about it from the perspective of how it'll be built and what materials will be used, and conform your design to that as usually fabrication capabilities or materials or installation obstacles will drive the scope of the project.

So I guess on one hand you're designing something to look nice, but never losing sight of the fact that it has to be buildable and installable and permittable and servicable, so you're thinking it through from a lot of angles and wearing a lot of hats.

Q: I’m sure you've seen your fair share of "graphic designers" trying to design electrical signage. What are some of the most common mistakes you've seen rookies make?

A: Oh yeah for sure, it's everywhere. And it's to be expected, there's no really good resource out there to learn this stuff.

Usually the designers that are new to it don't fully understand the limitations of fabrication, so they design things that aren't actually buildable.

And then you have to decipher what they were trying to achieve and work backwards to figure out how to build that and then make the design still work on top of it.

But things like making strokes on channel letters too small so LEDs won't fit in it, making channel letter depths to shallow, requesting materials that aren't really the right materials, etc.. It runs the gamut really

Q: What does your process for designing illuminated signage look like at a high level? Where are you getting started? How does it flow? What tools are you using?

A: Typically with the jobs I do for me the customer comes to me with a site survey with dimensions, notes, photos, etc., and at least a rough idea of what they want. Often there's already existing branding guidelines to work within.

From there I suppose it starts like most other design projects. Once I have a good understanding of the scope of the work, I start moving basic shapes around to nail down the overall proportions, and then slowly start adding in more info/detail etc. until it's a fully fleshed out drawing.

As far as tools, I use whatever I need to. I mostly use CorelDraw anymore, which sort of pains me to say... I used to be a die-hard Adobe fanboy, but the reality is Corel is a stout program and it's better equipped for this type of design work. In a lot of ways if behaves more like a CAD program than a ""design"" program, which lends itself to this work.

That said, when I do need a design program, I switch to Adobe. The interface and tools IMO are just smoother and easier to use. I find Corel's vector drawing tools and text tools somewhat cumbersome =, so anything that needs line work or a lot of text manipulation is done in Illustrator and then brought into Corel. The two play together very nicely surprisingly.

For photo renderings/mockups I use Photoshop.

Q: Are there any plugins or add-ons you're using for CorelDraw or Illustrator to speed up your design workflow?

A: In Corel, NO. I have templated as much as possible for efficiency. I've cataloged all of the common section details, hardware, etc so I can just drop it into drawings. Libraries of material fills, color palettes for paints and vinyls, etc..

In Illustrator, I use CadTools plugin which I really hate, but is a necessary evil.

And I have title block template files set up for all of my customers, already dialed in to their look, with all of the components I need so I don't have to hunt for stuff for hours.

Otherwise my workflow/toolset is fairly basic. No crazy plugins or magic, I do everything by hand mostly.

I am trying to learn Sketchup for 3d renderings, but it's hard to find time to get beyond the basics.

Q: For a shop that has mostly done vinyl signage and printing, but wants to get into larger illuminated / fabricated projects, what's the best way for them to get started in that arena?

A: It's not something I really recommend they jump into blindly (like I sort of did)... There's a lot to know and a lot of liability in it. You're no longer talking about screwing a sheet of Dibond to a wall.

But they shouldn't be scared of it, they just need to research it and understand what they're getting into so they can speak intelligently about it to their customers and vendors and sell a better product.

And they should expect to outsource everything - including design - for a while. I'm not saying that to plug my business here, but as I mentioned above on that other question, there's a lot to know, and an inexperienced designer will make every mistake in the book, which can cost the company big.

So learn the product, learn the zoning regulations, learn what it'll take to get it manufactured and installed, and hire someone with experience to handle the design/specifications, permit drawings, etc.. The few hundred dollars you'll pay for that will make your life a lot easier.

Permitting can be a major headache for inexperienced companies as well, so learning the code is critical. Typically some license is required in most municipalities to sell electrical signs also.

Q: In this world of $5k printers, $2k CNC routers, and $500 vinyl cutters, how do you set yourself apart as a seasoned profession that is just starting with your own shop when just about anybody can get into the business now?

A: I think you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. Don't stoop to their level and try to get into a price war with them. Make sure your brand identity, customer service, and product quality are on point, and repeatedly remind people why you cost more than the guy working out of his spare bedroom down the street.

And don't get too hung up on those lowballers that pop up. If you step back and look at it, they're really no threat to you. If you are producing a high-end product that people can't just get anywhere (that could be the signs you produce or the service you provide while producing those signs), the guy down the street isn't your competitor.

In other words, create a business that has no competitors.

Q: I believe you did both retail and trade (contract) work in your old shop. Which was more profitable for you? 
And what would your advice be to a 5 to 10 employee shop that had been serving retail customers but just had a decent ($15k) contract opportunity present itself?

A: That's correct, we were probably 1/3 retail and 2/3 trade printing. By retail I mean the end user was the purchaser, and by trade, I mean we were selling to another sign company, or to a marketing agency, architect or builder, etc., as part of a larger project. This was our bread and butter and we were trying to move away from "retail" work almsot entirely save for a few clients.

Trade printing for me was more profitable because typically the jobs were larger and were well managed by the client so we could easily step in and manufacture with minimal headaches typically associated with dealing with the general public.

Obviously trade printing usually means trade pricing, so that has to be taken into consideration as well, but in my experience the larger projects and easier clients justified the slimmer margins.

I would definitely encourage any shop to take any of those opportunities that come along. Very few larger companies in this industry got to where they are by turning down that work.

If nothing else, trade work like that can be an excellent filler between more profitable jobs.

For example, we used to do a lot of wrap printing for other sign shops. It was filler work for us to keep the printers running, so we'd just load those jobs up on the printers and let them run over night. We'd lam and trim the next day and scoot them out the door with minimal handling. Even though we were making less than half what we would have otherwise if it was a retail job, it's work we wouldn't have gotten otherwise and making a buck a square profit for doing very little is better than nothing...

Q: $2mil+ in revenue annually for your shop is no slouch. You and your team must have been moving a lot of jobs through production to hit those numbers.

We had a lot of trouble with keeping all the employees on track as far as what to do next and how to prioritize work.

What did your process for scheduling and production management look like?

A: It was a struggle for us too, but we had it dialed in fairly well. We used signVOX for everything, but augmented it's limited (at the time) production tracking capabilities with some additional systems.

We used the signVOX job board for overall order tracking, but then had a large dry erase schedule board that broke out all machines and what was to print on them when.

Our jobs were fairly systematic as we evolved away from custom signage and into retail/event graphics, so it was fairly easy to schedule and manage the job flow this way.

On any given day we'd have 100-200 jobs active in production so at times it was a lot to manage, but we were all really organized and diligent and avoid most major missteps fortunately

Our work orders from signvox also included a proof of the job with all specs, colors to match, etc., color samples, material samples, etc., and were kept in clear mechanic's envelopes and those followed the job from department to department.

Q: For a shop that's been pretty successful over the years and employs 6+ people but has struggled with growing pains and is stuck in the $500k to $999k annual sales range - Where would you tell them to place their focus to help them get over the hump?

A: I'm not sure I can really give a generic answer to what's probably a fairly specific problem that's preventing them from going to the next level. There are a lot of variables at play there.

But probably focus on the health of the business before they chase that growth.

Get processes dialed in, staff trained, etc. and then market the hell out of yourself to the potential clients you want to work with

If the operation is solid, marketing is where I'd put my money.

And on that topic I'd highly recommend they budget for and invest in an outside marketing agency for this vs. bringing it in house.

That's not cheap but is usually worth it's weight in gold.

Q: "It seems like a lot of owners I've spoken with look towards selling the shop as a means to retire or live their second life, but when they start down that path they didn't realize how much work and time was involved.

What mistakes would to tell others to watch out for if they were trying to sell their shop? Is there anything they should be doing today if they are looking to sell the shop in 3-4 years time?

A: Yeah it's a pain in the ass to be quite frank. Especially in my case, my buyer wasn't the most pleasant of people anyway.

If you're entertaining the idea of selling at some point in the future, meet with a business broker and a lawyer to start getting your ducks in a row early. Starting to keep excellent records, document everything, have systems and processes for everything in place, have an employee handbook and SOP manuals, etc.. Keep track of assets and inventory.

In other words, tie up all your loose ends and whip the business in to top shape and start focusing on training and processes that remove you from the picture.

If a business relies on the owner to be present to operate, that's a bad thing, and you'll have a hard time selling ti, let alone getting any money out of it. It needs to be set up to be turn key so the new owners can step into their new roles and the business doesn't really miss a beat.

Q: In my old shop we were in a smaller market and heavily involved in the local community.

As we grew from small local businesses to larger accounts and a more regional footprint - we struggled with the transition from a lot of one off small jobs to more steady, more profitable corporate accounts.

Our customers who we built the business with would often tie up our time for a $100 order, when we'd send one or two emails that would net us $2k or more.

How would advise others to handle that situation? When do you turn away this type of work?

A: When it becomes un-profitable.

Ultimately you're in business to make money, Period.

So you have to make a decision to get tough and strict with those nickel and dime orders eventually if you want to go to the next level.

And it's hard to do because those customers are probably like friends or family, they've been with you from the start, and to start pricing them out or turning their work down in a way feels like you're telling them "I'm too good for you now"

So that's a hard pill to swallow, but again, ultimately you're in business to make money. Those little jobs and customers WILL get in the way of the big and more profitable jobs and customers, so you have to cut them loose eventually. That's just the nature of business.

Once we had defined our ideal client, we started to audit our existing clients and over time started paring that list back, starting with the customers who were the least profitable, until we'd sort of cherry picked our customer list to be in line with our future growth plans

How would you approach the grey area?

A specific example - the local restaurant owner who's business spends decent money with you every year on menu boards and signage. But comes in regularly with a personal small decal project or want's a single name sewed on his daughters backpack?

Those are tough, you're sort of screwed either way honestly, I never figured out a really great solution to this.

Usually I would just evaluate their overall value and make a gut decision if their little orders were worth dealing with. There's a lot of nuance there I suppose, sometimes if you just like the person even if their orders are a pain, they're worth keeping.

But if/when I did hang onto these folks I did make sure we enforced minimum order/lead time policies so there was no last minute rushing for a $50 sticker.

So I guess that's an important point - whatever you do, have boundaries or rules for the small jobs, and make sure that's communicated to them crystal clearly so at least you're not always stuck doing them favors.

Q: Any suggestions for getting your foot in the door with commercial general contractors, building managers, etc who need building signage, ada signs, etc. for their larger commercial and industrial projects?

A: Aside from the common strategies like networking at events they attend, etc., honestly I've found this to be a hard industry to break into but once you're in your footprint grows rapidly.

I think it mostly comes down to being the next shop in line to swoop in and save the day when the current vendor inevitably drops the ball. Networking and building word of mouth with them is part of the battle, but if they don't need a vendor they don't need a vendor and you can't change that. I guess you have to sort of be in the right place at the right time.

I hate to say it may come down to luck, but I think it does to a point.

Also, get on any and all bid lists you can, and bid bid bid. Attend pre-bid meetings whenever you can (they're good networking opportunities). Bidding is no fun but it's a numbers game, eventually you'll win one and get your foot in the door.

There are companies out there that you can sign up to be fed construction leads, but also just reach out to the companies themselves to find out how to learn about future bid opportunities. Also watch out for government/public bid opportunities, which are usually open to any vendors.

Michael Riley

I'm a 22+ year veteran of the sign industry, starting out in a small mom-and-pop vinyl shop in Dayton, OH that my wife and I eventually bought and grew into a $2m+ sign and wide format company. After 14 years of ownership we sold the company to a local buyer and moved to Portland, OR to live a more relaxed life.

After selling our business, I worked for a very small sign company, then a very large one (both as a designer), and am now self-employed again as a freelance designer for other sign companies.

Throughout my career, I've gotten my hands dirty in most facets of the sign industry, from hand carving and painting, welding, fabrication, electrical repair, installation, management, etc.. I have a degree in visual communications with continuing education in architectural drafting, was a 3M certified wrap installer, a certified Mimaki technician, Gracol/G7 certified, and am currently considering pursuing a degree in structural engineering to add to my offering as a designer.

I also love cats. A lot.

https://www.letterboxsigndesign.com